Bourbon is as American as apple pie. From Bourbon County, Kentucky (originally part of Virginia), it is traditionally synonymous with "whisky" in the South. Finally recognized by the federal government as distinctly American in 1964, it is now protected under law. Bourbon makes up about 15% of the United States spirits market.
Bourbon is distilled from a fermented mash of grain, of which at least 51% must be corn. It is bottled between 80 and 125 proof and must be aged at least 2 years in new, charred white-oak barrels (charred to add color and possibly some flavor). Only limestone-filtered spring water may be used to lower alcohol proof. Sour mash is used in most bourbon. It is the residue from a previous mash run, allowed to sour overnight and then added to a new batch of mash, similar to the process for making a starter for sourdough bread.
Corn spirits were made as early as 1746, and a distillery was established in Bourbon County in 1783. Elijah Craig is often credited with the development of the distinctive taste of bourbon. Craig, a Baptist minister from Royal Springs, Virginia (now named Georgetown, Kentucky), began making his spirits in 1789. It was Dr. James C. Crow, a physician, and chemist, who introduced the scientific methodology and quality control to Kentucky whiskey making in the 1820s. He also introduced the sour-mash distilling process. At first, it was called "corn whiskey," but by the middle of the 19th century it was so associated with Bourbon County, Kentucky, that it was called "bourbon," or "Kentucky bourbon." There are currently thirteen distilleries in Kentucky, making nearly 80% of the world's supply of bourbon, with the remaining produced in Tennessee, Virginia, and Missouri.
Bourbon is finding its way into more and more of our recipes. Similar to brandy in flavor, a good well-aged bourbon can replace brandy in most recipes. Traditionally used to flavor confections and desserts, it is also frequently used in barbecue sauces and turning up in many main dishes, like some of the recipes below.